What It Means To Grow Up Jewish in Chicago

Growing up Jewish in Chicago means you’re perversely proud of the fact that you didn’t grow up in New York.

Growing up Jewish in Chicago means you actually grew up in Chicago — not in Skokie, Evanston, Arlington Heights, Buffalo Grove or any of the other suburbs where Jews started to flee when real estate prices in their neighborhoods started getting too low and the sports teams at their public high schools started getting too good.

Growing up Jewish in Chicago means your parents or their parents or their parents’ parents came over from the Old Country and lived in shtetl-like neighborhoods in Albany Park or on the Old West Side. Or maybe they lived in Hyde Park or South Shore, in which case they probably didn’t associate with the parents or parents’ parents who lived in Albany Park or on the Old West Side.

Growing up Jewish in Chicago means it took you a long while before you figured out what that meant.

Growing up Jewish in Chicago means you lived in Lincoln Park or Hyde Park or Budlong Woods or, in this case, West Rogers Park — a cereal deliveryman to your left, a rabbi and rebbetzin to your right, a retired construction worker immediately across the street.

Growing up Jewish in Chicago means you didn’t grow up in Sauganash.

Growing up Jewish in Chicago means you lived in a house where you were surrounded by thick books with portentous titles such as “To Jerusalem and Back,” “The End of the Jewish People” and “Elsewhere Perhaps,” but you never actually saw anyone in your house reading those books and, after a certain point, you understood that your parents had gotten them from Book-of-the-Month Club and, since the books were written by Jewish authors, they would have felt guilty about sending them back.

Growing up Jewish in Chicago means that Isaac Bashevis Singer once pinched your cheek at the JCC and autographed your copy of “When Shlemiel Went to Warsaw.”

Growing up Jewish in Chicago means that your father once took you to hear George Steiner speak at the JCC when you were far too young to understand what the hell he was talking about.

Growing up Jewish in Chicago means that your father subscribed to Commentary.

Growing up Jewish in Chicago means you grew up Jewish but not all that Jewish, so your class at the Daniel Boone Elementary School was filled with Goldbergs, Goldsteins, Grosses and Mosses, but also with Flynns, Kotowskis, O’Haras and Yungs, and all of those names seemed to mean pretty much the same thing.

Growing up Jewish in Chicago means your second grade class took two field trips — one to Congregation KINS of West Rogers Park, the other to St. Timothy’s — and your mother wrote you a sick note so you wouldn’t have to go on the second field trip.

Growing up Jewish in Chicago means that, though your parents were committed to the city, they were also ambitious (at least as far as you were concerned), so they bailed on the public school system and sent you to a private school in the northern suburbs where President Ford’s Chief of Staff Donald Rumsfeld had gone, and where you were the only Jew in your second grade class which had a kid in it named Mike who said he hated all Jews but you were okay. And so, at the end of the school year, your parents pulled you out of that school and sent you back to the crappy public school, which had gotten even crappier so they sent you back one more time to the private school where the anti-Semitic second grader was thankfully gone. And by then, even the mean kids didn’t seem to really care one way or the other about the fact you were Jewish because they had other people to harass, such as the couple of black kids and the one Chinese kid. And if you had been a young, social justice type of Jew, you would have spoken up for them. But you weren’t, and so you didn’t. And, though you don’t feel good about that, nevertheless, it’s true.

Growing up Jewish in Chicago means it was a little weird when the music teacher expected you to know the words to “Mary Had a Baby,” which she asked you to sing at the school assembly. But truth be told, it really wasn’t that big of a deal; you felt more uncomfortable when you had to sing “Dreidel Mine Spin Spin Spin.”

Growing up Jewish in Chicago means that, when you were sent to the principal’s office for calling another kid some bad word that you actually can’t recall right now, you put on an innocent face and said you would never ever do such a thing because you knew that, as your class’s only Jewish kid, people could say worse things about you.

Growing up Jewish in Chicago means your principal believed you.

Growing up Jewish in Chicago means at least you think she did.

Growing up Jewish in Chicago means that when you would go over to your non-Jewish friends’ houses, their parents would ask you if you were watching miniseries such as “Holocaust” and “Masada” and you didn’t know if they were trying to be sensitive or if they were just being jerks, but now you think they were probably both.

Growing up Jewish in Chicago means that, though you were lousy in sports, you took a particular interest in Jewish or Jewish-sounding or Jewish-seeming Chicago athletes such as Mike Veisor, Ron Blomberg and Eric Soderholm, who, as it turned out, wasn’t Jewish but did wear a Star of David. So there’s that.

Growing up Jewish in Chicago means that probably the most sacrilegious period of your life took place during the five years you attended Hebrew school — a sad, sordid tale involving tacks placed on rabbis’ chairs and snowballs whipped at CTA buses and hallway fistfights and classmates who spent recess swiping porn and Cadbury chocolate bars from nearby Sun Drugs, after which teachers shouted and banged tzedakah boxes and ordered everyone to copy passages from Maimonides 100 times.

Growing up Jewish in Chicago means you attended Hebrew school with tough, or at least boastful girls, one of whom got sent home for wearing a Campbell’s Soup “Mm-Mm Good” T-shirt that your rabbi insisted was “pornographic” and another who asserted that, ever since she had started giving blowjobs, she had given up chewing the free hot dog-shaped bubblegum at Fluky’s Red Hots.

Growing up Jewish in Chicago means you didn’t know if she was joking or not.

Growing up Jewish in Chicago means you’re still not sure.

Growing up Jewish in Chicago means that, during a rehearsal for an all-school play, you accidentally turned off the synagogue’s eternal light and your rabbi didn’t believe you when you said it was an accident even though it really was.

Growing up Jewish in Chicago means that you once saw one of your Hebrew school rabbis attending “The Black Stallion” at the Nortown Theater on Western Avenue with his wife and you realized he was just a person like anyone else and you felt sort of bad for everything he had endured as your class’s teacher.

Growing up Jewish in Chicago means you still remember his name.

Growing up Jewish in Chicago means you’re sensitive enough not to print it.

Or maybe you’re not.

Rabbi Knoblauch.

Growing up Jewish in Chicago means that, during the High Holidays, you sat in shul with your dad in one of the back rows on a metal folding chair and spent most of the service trying to see if you could develop telekinetic powers and use them to sear a hole into the freckle on the neck of the man sitting in front of you.

Growing up Jewish in Chicago means that you should remember all this fondly now, and you guess you sort of do, but at the same time, you sort of don’t.

Growing up Jewish in Chicago means your bar mitzvah was held at a fancy-schmancy Magnificent Mile hotel with an open bar where you and your 12- and 13-year-old friends drank actual cocktails, told dirty jokes and looked out at the view of Lake Michigan while some of your car salesmen cousins shared tips on fleecing customers.

Growing up Jewish in Chicago means that, when you look back at that night, you still think it’s weird.

Growing up Jewish in Chicago means you understand there’s a difference between remembering things and feeling nostalgic for them.


Growing up Jewish in Chicago means that you were named your Hebrew school’s valedictorian, which should have been called the Lesser-of-15-Evils award. As a prize, you got a book by William Safire and a scholarship to the Ida Crown Jewish Academy, which you turned down because you would instead be attending a public school in the north suburbs, which, according to one of your rabbis, used to be good but now had too many blacks. He added something negative about Jesse Jackson and something positive about Bayard Rustin.

Growing up Jewish in Chicago means that, after your bar mitzvah you lost track of most of your Hebrew school classmates: the girl who talked about blow jobs and Fluky’s gum; the wild, funny kid who invited you over to his house to play Intellivision; the girl you had a crush on who used to scrawl Aerosmith, Rush and other band names all over her notebooks.

Growing up Jewish in Chicago means that you went to an integrated public high school in Evanston, but you got involved in drama and journalism, where Jews were overrepresented, so it was pretty much like going to a Jewish high school anyway.

Growing up Jewish in Chicago means you probably were attending that Evanston high school illegally.

Growing up Jewish in Chicago means you wonder if you still might get busted for that.

Growing up Jewish in Chicago means that actor Robert Clary from “Hogan’s Heroes” addressed your school at a Holocaust remembrance assembly and you felt uncomfortable when some people started laughing.

Growing up Jewish in Chicago means that, when Harold Washington and Bernard Epton were running for mayor, you felt divided because your liberal Jewish friends were supporting Washington, but you sensed that Epton was being used and was actually a decent enough guy, and he could become Chicago’s first Jewish mayor and how could you vote against that? Then again, you weren’t old enough to vote, so it was all pretty much moot.

Growing up Jewish in Chicago means that most of the adults you tended to encounter — your relatives, your father’s high school friends — had spent their entire lives in and around Chicago, and you realized that you didn’t want to be someone who spent his whole life in and around Chicago.

Growing up Jewish in Chicago means that you decided to go to college in New York.

Growing up Jewish in Chicago means that, when you went to college in New York, you were just about the only Jew from Chicago.

Growing up Jewish in Chicago means that you majored in political science because, for a while, you thought you might go into politics and, hell, if Bernard Epton almost became Chicago’s first Jewish mayor, why not you? And, yes, you gave up that dream pretty quickly, but did the one who finally destroyed it have to turn out to be Rahm Emanuel? Did it really have to be a guy who went to New Trier?

Growing up Jewish in Chicago means you find it weird that Rahm Emanuel and Liz Phair went to the same high school.

Growing up Jewish in Chicago means that, when you went to college in New York, you were surrounded by New York Jews who seemed different than the sorts of Jews you knew from Chicago. They had had addresses on Park Avenue or Central Park West or they grew up in rent-controlled apartments in the Village but summered in Connecticut. These were Jews who knew Bob Dylan because he lived across the hall. These were Jews whose families owned big-name mail order businesses or department stores. These were Jews who looked dubious when you said you grew up in the Chicago equivalent of Brooklyn because they sensed that where you grew up was really the Chicago equivalent of Queens. Which meant that you spent a lot of time hanging out with first-generation Asian kids and lapsed Catholics on merit scholarships, and scions of WASPy families who had pissed away the fortune eons ago, all of whom seemed a lot more similar to Jews growing up in Chicago than you did to Jews who grew up in New York.

Growing up Jewish in Chicago means that, after you’d been away from Chicago for a while, you realized that a Jew who grew up in Chicago was a thing you could be, an identity you could embrace. When you came home on breaks, you could take people around and show them the schoolyard where you’d played fast pitch, the Hebrew school where you and your friends had terrorized your teachers, the home of the rabbi who still lived next door. You could walk up and down Devon Avenue as if you were Tony Danza patrolling the streets of Little Italy, and you could get a kichel from Levinson’s Bakery or a cheese slice from Tel Aviv Kosher Pizza and say, “This is my neighborhood; this is where I grew up.” And because this was who you actually were and not someone you were pretending to be, this turned out to be a far better first date strategy than a trip to Lincoln Park Zoo or a walk on the beach or a candlelit dinner at Ambria or Spiaggia or the Cape Cod Room or whichever overpriced dining establishment was supposed to be romantic.

Growing up Jewish in Chicago means when you decided you were going be a writer, your father told you to see if Commentary was hiring.

Growing up Jewish in Chicago means that you moved back to Chicago after college, but you sort of knew you would eventually move back to New York.

Growing up Jewish in Chicago means that, when you moved back to New York, you wound up in a neighborhood that reminded you of your old neighborhood in Chicago.

Growing up Jewish in Chicago means that you wrote some books about Jews who grew up in Chicago and the books did okay, but everyone kept telling you they would have done so much better if they had been set in New York, so you set some books in New York and they did all right, but for some reason, New York seemed so much smaller to you than Chicago ever did so you started writing about Chicago again.

Growing up Jewish in Chicago means that, when you told your parents that you were going to be a parent, they told you that they wanted your children to be circumcised and you were so thankful that you wound up having girls so you wouldn’t have to have that particular argument.

Growing up Jewish in Chicago means that, every so often, you think about your Hebrew school classmates and what became of them, but most of them had pretty common names, so even on Facebook they’re hard to find. You once caught a glimpse of one of the girls at an Aerosmith concert; you once heard that the wild, funny kid you’d played Intellevision with jumped out of a window at college and killed himself. You heard some other stories — some are sort of dull, others are more interesting — you won’t repeat those.

Growing up Jewish in Chicago means that, for a while in New York, you spoke out with a missionary zeal about the Jewish food in Chicago and how it was far better than the Jewish food in New York. For a while, you were convinced that the corned beef at Manny’s Deli on Jefferson was better than the corned beef at the 2nd Avenue Deli, that the matzo ball soup at The Bagel on Broadway was superior to the one at Zabar’s, that nothing could compare with the apple danishes you had consumed as a child at Ashkenaz. But after a certain point, you realized you didn’t eat any of that crap anymore and, though even now you’re still fond of Lincolnwood’s New York Bagel & Bialy (despite its name), it just can’t measure up to Absolute Bagels on Broadway. And yes, the challah and rye bread at North Shore Kosher Bakery are actually still pretty damn good, but aside from that, none of it really matters.

Growing up Jewish in Chicago means that, when the economy went to hell a few years ago, you and your family toyed with the notion of moving back to Chicago, but you quickly realized that, given the crappiness of the public school system, you’d probably wind up living in the suburbs. And you just couldn’t see yourself doing that.

Growing up Jewish in Chicago means that, though you’ve lived in New York for more than a decade, you care more about Chicago politics than you’ll ever care about New York politics, that you watched each of the debates between Rahm Emanuel and Chuy Garcia and not one second of any involving Bill DeBlasio, that you don’t give a damn about sports anymore but you still kind of like it when the Blackhawks win or when the Yankees lose.

Growing up Jewish in Chicago means that your daughters are New Yorkers in a way you’ll never be.

Growing up Jewish in Chicago means that, even though you live in New York, you’ll never be a New York Jew.

And you’re perversely proud of that fact too.

Adam Langer is the Forward’s culture editor.

Author

Adam Langer

Adam Langer

Adam Langer is the Forward’s culture editor. Born and raised in Chicago, he now lives in New York. He has written plays, films, criticism and a memoir, but most of the time, he writes novels.
He is the author of the novels “Crossing California,” “The Washington Story,” “Ellington Boulevard,” “The Thieves of Manhattan” and “The Salinger Contract” as well as the memoir “My Father’s Bonus March.”

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